It's time to take back control of our data and become active data citizens, says author

What does it mean to be a good data citizen? Data artist and author Jer Thorp discusses how to build the information future we want. And political scientist Branka Panic talks about how data and machine learning can be used in conflict resolution and human rights.

Current systems 'don't allow for meaningful agency,' says data artist

We're used to the idea that online presence presumes data collection. But Jer Thorp says we can become more active 'data citizens.' (THICHA SATAPITANON / Shutterstock)

In 2013, Hunter College High was named the saddest spot in New York City. The title was given to the Upper East Side high school by a research group after they conducted a sentiment analysis of thousands of geotagged tweets from the city. 

To data artist Jer Thorp, the report is a good illustration of the key issues around our relationship with data."We have almost no mechanisms to say to the people who are doing the collecting how right or wrong these things are," he told Spark host Nora Young. "We don't have ways, as individuals and as communities, to do the same data recording acts in the service of ourselves."

For global online citizens, there is a sense that daily data collection can be difficult to avoid. What Thorp argues in his new book, Living in Data: A Citizen's Guide to a Better Information Future, is that we can take a more active role with the data we generate and analyze.

"There's a necessity to start coming up with our own stories about what we can and can't do about data," Thorp said. 

Lately, there has been a shift toward users reclaiming control over their own digital footprint. On April 26, a much-anticipated update from Apple was released, which allows people to change privacy settings on their devices to limit data collection from third-party apps and choose when to share their data. But Thorp argued that another type of change is also necessary: how the data, once collected, gets interpreted. 

Artist, activist and author Jer Thorp says right now, living in data means being 'extracted from, over and over and over.' In his new book, he explains how we can take a more active role. (Roman Makhmutov)

With the Hunter College High example, Thorp wondered "what's it like for these students to feel like their trivial tweets were being pulled from them, and these analytical decisions were being made about them based on that?"

After the study was published, some Hunter College High students came forward to say that no one they knew was even on Twitter, while other reports said the negative posts may have been connected to the timing of data collection, which took place at the end of summer break. As a result of the media reports, the research group amended the analysis results to say that the high school was, in fact, adjacent to the saddest spot — not the epicentre of it. 

"One of my big critiques about the way we've constructed data systems is that they don't allow for meaningful agency," Thorp said. With some of his own data projects, he said he worked on ways to bring people together around data and "understand how their lived experience was or was not mirrored by data."

Data for the greater good

Taking ownership of personal and collective data can also contribute to important global initiatives, according to political scientist Branka Panic.

Panic is the founder and executive director of AI for Peace, a non-profit organization with a focus on humanitarian applications of artificial intelligence and related technologies. She recently put together a report that explores how data-driven tools like satellite imagery and natural language processing are used in peacebuilding and conflict prevention.

One example of this is crowdsourcing images and video from conflict zones. "From the amount of content, you can imagine how difficult it would be to manually go through all this. So it's often expensive and extremely time-consuming," said Panic. She cited an example of Amnesty International's efforts to document human rights violations in Myanmar by sourcing video footage from citizens. 

Branka Panic researches the utilization of data-driven approaches to peacebuilding and prevention. (NYU/CIC)

However, Panic cautioned against taking a purely extractive approach to such sensitive information, to avoid what is known in the field as data colonialism. 

"Let's think about the historical function of colonialism, which is appropriation of resources on a mass scale. So it was first the territory, land grab. Today, in a way, with Big Data, we have a new type of land grab — this new resource is data. Data is not only a commodity, it's human. This is who we are, [what] our experiences are."

One of the ways to avoid this is giving control over data to communities, where members can decide what information is shared and how it is shared. "We see this very important trend in Canada and the U.S. with Indigenous communities, and making sure we have this data sovereignty being given back to people themselves," Panic said, referring to Indigenous information governance initiatives across North America. 

Jer Thorp said once people have control over their own data, they can also help ensure that the information gets interpreted accurately, with benefits to both the people who are gathering the data, and communities whose data is collected.

"If you move yourself from thinking about [data] as this really inert computational thing, and switch it into being this human, messier thing, I think there's lots of nice ideas that can be born from it."

To hear the full conversations with Jer Thorp and Branka Panic, click the 'listen' button at the top of the page. 

Written by Olsy Sorokina. Produced by Samraweet Yohannes and Nora Young.

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